Posted on December 18, 2020

How Race Politics Liberated the Elites

Matthew Crawford, Unherd, December 12, 2020

The HBO series Succession depicts the dynastic dramas of a family-controlled media company, headed by patriarch Logan Roy in a spirit of vigorous tyranny. This clan is ultra-rich and totally amoral. One of the sons, the dissolute and aptly named Roman (played by Kieran Culkin) is gleefully immoral, skewering the petty decencies of “normal people” with lines that make you wince and laugh out loud at the same time. It is a delicious depiction of aristocratic license that would be recognisable to observers of the senatorial class in late-empire Rome, or the court of Louis XVI. To watch the show is to take an hour-long break from the relentless moralism of contemporary life and watch power operate with bald-faced corruption, rather than self-righteous bullshit. {snip}

The Roy family occupies the most rarefied level of globe-trotting oligarchs. Dropping down a rung or two on the pyramid of power, consider the moral ecology inhabited by the broader gentility: the salaried decision-makers and ideas-managers who service the global arrangement from various departments of the ideological apparatus. They may work in NGOs, the governing bodies of the EU, corporate journalism, HR departments, the celebrity-industrial complex, the universities, Big Tech, etc. They, too, enjoy a kind of freedom, but it is decidedly not that of the high-spirited criminals depicted in Succession. So far from living “beyond good and evil”, this broader class of cosmopolitans asserts its freedom through its moralism, precisely. In particular, they have broken free of the claims of allegiance made upon them by the particular communities they emerge from.

How does this work, psychologically? The idea of a common good has given way to a partition of citizens along the lines of a moral hierarchy – one that just happens to mirror their material fortunes (as in Calvinism). Instead of feeling bound up in a shared fate with one’s countrymen, one develops an alternate solidarity that is placeless. The relatability across national borders that the gentlefolk feel in one another’s company — the gracious ease and trust, the shared points of reference in high-prestige opinion — has something to do with their uniformly high standing in the moral hierarchy that divides citizen from citizen within their own nations. The decision-making class has discovered that it enjoys the mandate of heaven, and with this comes certain permissions; certain exemptions from democratic scruple.

The permission structure is built around grievance politics. Very simply: if the nation is fundamentally racist, sexist and homophobic, I owe it nothing. More than that, conscience demands that I repudiate it. Hannah Arendt spelled out this logic of high-minded withdrawal from the claims of community in the essays she wrote in response to the protest movements of the 1960s. Conscience “trembles for the individual self and its integrity,” appealing over the head of the community to a higher morality. {snip}

In The Revolt of the Elites, Christopher Lasch spelled out in greater detail the role that claims of racial and sexual oppression play in securing release from allegiance to the nation — not just for those who identify as its victims, but for those with the moral sensitivity to see victimisation where it may not be apparent, and who make this capacity a touchstone of their identity. It becomes a token of moral elevation by which we recognise one another, and distinguish ourselves from the broader run of citizens. Both Lasch and Arendt argue that black Americans serve a crucial function for the white bourgeoisie. As the emblem and proof of America’s illegitimacy, they anchor a politics of repudiation in which the idea of a common good has little purchase.

This illegitimacy transcends any particular historical facts about slavery and segregation. Indeed it transcends America, as one can surmise by the ease with which American grievance politics has been exported throughout the Western world. {snip}


The Left’s posture of liberationism provided an interpretive frame in which the deadly riots and wider explosion of urban crime in the 1960s was to be understood as political rather than criminal. This interpretation played a key role in the wider inversion: it is “society” that is revealed to be criminal. The utility of urban rioting for the new Left lay in the fact that it was thought to carry an insight into the illegitimacy of even our most minimum standards of behaviour. The moral authority of the black person, as victim, gave the bourgeoisie permission to withdraw its allegiance from the social order, just as black people were gaining fuller admittance to it.


The white bourgeoisie became invested in a political drama in which their own moral standing depends on black people remaining permanently aggrieved. Unless their special status as ur-victim is maintained, African-Americans cannot serve as patrons for the wider project of liberation. If you question this victimisation, you are questioning the rottenness of America. And if you do that, you are threatening the social order, strangely enough. For it is now an order governed by the freelance moralists of the cosmopolitan consensus. Somehow these free agents, ostensibly guided by individual conscience, have coalesced into something resembling a tribe, one that is greatly angered by rejection of its moral expertise.